Should you trust Dr Google?
Benenden Health says more Britons than ever are turning to the web for health advice. Kath Stathers investigates why...
In 2018 alone there were more than 100 million health-related Google searches. A quarter of these were related to mental health, with anxiety the most frequently researched term, while two sexual health conditions also appeared in the top 10 most frequently searched - for complaints: chlamydia and gonorrhoea.
While Google (and other internet search engines) are brilliant for many things, health diagnosis is not one of them.
"Google is not medically trained"
“When a patient comes in for an appointment I don’t just listen to what they’re saying, I appraise their overall health, how they look and how they walked in to the room, as well as carrying out clinical tests,” explains NHS and Benenden Hospital GP Dr Karthika Shanmuganathan. “But with Google, it completely depends what you typed in for what diagnosis you’ll come up with. And Google is not medically trained.”
Despite the search engine’s lack of medical training, it doesn’t stop patients interrupting Dr Shanmuganathan’s diagnoses during her GP practice. “At least twice a day in my NHS practice I will have patients telling me I must be wrong because Google told them otherwise,” she says. Other than the extra time this self-diagnosis uses up, it can also lead to elevated levels of anxiety.
“If you have a headache, and you see the doctor who diagnoses a tension headache, you can deal with it and move on. But if you type in headache and come up with brain tumour, that’s clearly going to lead to a heightened level of anxiety,” says Dr Shanmuganathan, who wasn’t surprised that anxiety was the most searched-for term. At least half of her daily appointments are related to mental health.
However, this internet-fuelled health anxiety – known as ‘cyberchondria’ – isn’t just bad for patients. It could be costing the NHS as much as £56m a year in unnecessary GP appointments and further tests, according to a joint study by King’s College London and Imperial College London.
At the other end of the spectrum, if people are misdiagnosing conditions and self-treating – rather than going to see a pharmacist or a GP – they could be causing themselves long-term harm and spreading infections to others. This is particularly relevant to sexual health, which people might feel embarrassed to see their doctor about – but a correct diagnosis is essential.
For any undiagnosed medical complaint, Dr Shanmuganathan would always advise seeing a pharmacist or GP rather than searching online. However, she is far from internetphobic and recognises that there are some very useful websites with clear, simple information.
Figures show that around a quarter of patients now wait at least one week to see a GP. “When there’s a long wait for doctors’ appointments it’s easy to get impatient and the ability to self-diagnose via the internet can for some be too tempting,” says Helen Smith, chief commercial officer at Benenden Health.
“We’re continually experiencing increased access to these helplines,” says Helen. “It gives our members 24/7 access to medical advice, helping to reduce the need for self-diagnosis.”